Sure, education is weird. But it’s not THAT weird.

(What follows is a rant. I have moderate confidence about my impressions, but I have made no attempt to test or challenge them. I mostly wrote it because it was fun to write, and I think it’s true.)

There are a lot of people who will tell you that education has a particularly awful culture, but to prove it they’ll point to things that are totally common in other industries. This amounts to a weird kind of exceptionalism about education — a belief that our culture is uniquely troubled.

An example is those godawful edu-celebrities. They get these enormous (and enormously lucrative) platforms and use them to spout a mix of meaningless platitudes and outright lies: Message of the day — Good teachers enter the classroom; Great teachers leave it. (I’m no good at making these up, but @EduCelebrity is fantastic at it.)

The thought goes like this: isn’t this a sign of the particularly awful culture of education? Isn’t the ascent of these blablas only possible because…and now you get to pick whatever it is you feel is uniquely wrong with education. We would never treat (and now pick some other job)(probably doctors or lawyers) like that!

But this misses the point entirely which is that these bozos are coming from the business world into education.

This would be a particularly good moment for me to pivot to stories from my time working in industry buuuuut my only grownup work experience is in teaching. So let me speak as a studious observer of the “Best Seller” table in bookstores and say that all this leadership and self-improvement stuff is coming to us directly from business and management. Edu leadership-speak is derivative of business-speak.

(If I have had no direct encounters with business culture, I have even less experience with the self-help world. As a NYC Jew let me say that it sure seems like the self-help world is rooted in evangelical church culture. That is an observation worth very little, obviously.)

But what about the garbage tech that suffuses education? I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the rest of the world is not exactly untouched by garbage tech.

OK, OK, but what about our particularly dysfunctional relationship between research and teaching? Can you imagine a group of doctors who routinely rejected medical research? That would be malpractice!

Two responses. First, yes, teachers ignore research. This is a whole thing, and it does seem possible to me that the research/practice gap is particularly wide in teaching. (For a lot of reasons.)

But also, the idea that medicine has a particularly simple relationship between research and practice ignores the gap between medical researchers and medical practitioners. And there is such a gap! I’m not saying that it’s as significant as the research gap in education — it’s not — but it’s there, and for many of the familiar reasons: not all research is relevant to practice, practitioners have values that are sometimes in tension with research, the profit motive pollutes the information environment, institutions have needs that aren’t identical to those of individuals.

Why should you believe me about this? Again, this would be a useful time to point to some particular expertise I have with medicine but, again, no. Although I’m not entirely making things up. First, there are many pieces one can read about the gap between evidence-based medicine and what happens in practice (such as this).

Second, I’ve asked doctor friends about this. In particular, I asked doctor friends how widespread anxiety about the research/practice gap is in medicine. And the answer I got was that it’s not nearly as pervasive as it is in education — not at all — but it’s there. Probably it depends on the specialty.

This weakens my point a bit. There clearly is a difference between education and other fields. But it’s not that different.

I understand that this is the loosest category of argument. I’m making an argument pertaining to quantity; but that’s just what I’m doing. Education is not SO special, it’s not THAT different, it’s LESS plagued by a uniquely bad culture than many people inside education think it is.

So, why is it that people frequently lament education’s particularly awful culture?

It would be tempting to play the exact same game I just finishing critiquing. In no other field do people say their field’s problems are unique! Education is the only profession that laments how unusually problematic it is! Do DOCTORS spend all day talking about how flawed their profession is?

But you know what? Everybody spends time complaining about their work. It’s your god-given right. Go ahead, exercise it! But in moderation.

2 thoughts on “Sure, education is weird. But it’s not THAT weird.

  1. I don’t know about “awful.” But weird…

    I do think in education more than many other fields most of the debates are fundamentally about values, disguised as debates about lots of other stuff.

    I was just browsing a couple articles and interviews about homework. I left a tab, came back, and saw this at the top of the page:

    CRAIN: And I guess you would find it acceptable if scientists from other
    countries made progress in a cure for cancer?

    KOHN: Yes. I quote Janet Swenson at Michigan State who made that
    wonderful observation. She said, do we really care if the person who discovers the cure for cancer is from Africa instead of from America.

    CRAIN: Or they produce a great sculpture or a great work of art in Italy or

    Took me a little bit to go back and figure out how we got from homework to that exchange.

    • I think that’s exactly right, Rachel! The disagreement on values and the ultimate goals of this whole educational enterprise is something that I think is actually distinctive about teaching. (There is some of that in other jobs, but with the exception of other branches of government I think there is a lot less.) (This is the biggest difference between medicine and education IMO.)

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